Sunday’s night’s Olympics closing ceremony went out with a spectacle of Shakespeare, Spice Girls, and sportsmanlike conduct—as Olympians donned their team get-ups and wagged their team flags.
Now that the games are officially over and athletes have headed home, many–the great majority, really—will wipe that polite TV smile off their faces and get back to the unglamorous life of an athlete who works day in and out—sweat, tears, blood, the whole bit–to get a shot at gold, only to come up short of any medal recognition.
Others will bask in victorious glory, show off their medals, hit the late-night TV circuit, and watch as endorsement and sponsorship offers come rolling in.
Though the games are already on their way to old-news status, some lingering debates remain over the role of money and advertising in the Olympics.
In most countries, athletes that medal get to top off the goods with a cash bonus from their home country’s Olympic Committee.
The U.S. Olympic Committee hands out $25,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for a silver, and $10,000 for a bronze. That adds up the more Team USA dominates at the games. This year the total bonus payout comes to $5.1 million for the 46 gold, 29 silver, and 29 bronze medals (each individual team member gets the bonus even if the team is only included in the count for one medal).
The surprising thing is that, on the world stage, we actually look pretty downright frugal compared to countries like Italy and Singapore, where medalists can receive a gold medal bonus in the form of $182,400 (Italy) and $800,000 (Singapore). Maybe the U.S. is just more realistic about how much we’ll be paying out; Singapore has never actually conquered gold in any Olympic games.
Not everyone’s a fan of this practice. If Americans are a little put off by the idea of rewarding performance with cash, Great Britain wins for most cheapskate-y in the medal bonus arena. The British Olympic Association doesn’t shell out anything to medal winners.
Here’s their explanation on why they do not give medal bonuses:
“It is our view that financial rewards do not significantly impact the motivation of an athlete to reach the Olympic podium….We believe that the drive, dedication and commitment required of Team GB athletes is motivated, first and foremost, by the desire to represent their country to the very best of their ability on the greatest sporting stage in the world, the Olympic Games; and their love of sport.”
If financial awards don’t have a negative impact, is there really a problem with giving out a little cash to athletes to help offset the costs they’ve incurred training for years (many without compensation)?
Members of Great Britain’s Olympic team have expressed support Team GB’s commitment to pocket that extra money rather than share it with winning athletes (in fairness, the team could be using it for training and other costs). 400 meter hurdle champion Dai Greene said:
“We’ve all worked our socks off because we want to be the gold medalist and to get the kit and be part of the team and something special. I think that’s more than enough payment for us all to be honest.”
Jessica Ennis, heptathlon champion, voiced a similar sentiment:
“You can get so wrapped up in the money side of things and as athletes we just want to go out there and perform the best we can. It’s all about the medal, that’s our reward. Any extra things are a bonus. It’s not about that and I think it would take it away from how special it is to make the team and win a medal.”
What’s really “special”: if you win gold, you may have the chance to be honored on a Royal Mail postage stamp (which, uh, the postal system then, of course, sells for a profit). They’ll tack on a £10,000 royalty, which doesn’t hurt.
Team GB’s sentiments are very polite–I mean, coming right out as an Olympian and saying, “What, you think I’m going to do this for free?” is definitely not in the spirit of the games. But is it really that unreasonable to think that the actual athletes might deserve a piece of the huge boon that is the Olympic industry? The International Olympic Committee pulls in big money on sponsorship, broadcasting, licensing, and tickets sales, and a major chunk of that revenue gets handed out to individual Olympic committees, who then choose how to delegate the money. If it’s economically feasible, giving a little loot out to the medal winners doesn’t sound like some crude idea that’s going to corrupt the spirit of the games.
Pragmatics might say that the bonuses aren’t the best use of the money, as the athletes who win gold are the most likely to benefit from sponsorships. Ok, so Michael Phelps probably doesn’t need an extra $130,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee–especially now that he’s set to hop on the reality-TV bandwagon–and athletes like gymnast Gabby Douglas (whose mom declared chapter 13 bankruptcy earlier this year, in part, she said, due to the costs of Gabby’s training) are probably going to be set, with talk of potential endorsement deals in the millions of dollars.
However, many sports don’t deliver the same sponsorship opportunities to gold medal winners as others–when was the last time you saw an Olympic archer on a Corn Flakes box?–yet can still require just as costly training. Forbes recently reported that elite archery training can cost $25,000 annually. A medal bonus of $25,000 or even $15,000 could go a long way to helping soothe those bow-and-arrow-slinging costs.
(Sidenote: NBC did say archery was one of most popular sports on NBC this games, likely due to the popularity of movies like The Hunger Games. Perhaps the tides are changing?)
Rule 40: No name-dropping on Twitter
Debate over medal payouts was only a small part of the Olympics drama this season; things really heated up when several U.S. track athletes took to Twitter to protest Rule 40, an IOC ban on any athlete behavior that would constitute advertising for non-official Olympic sponsors during the games.
Official Olympic sponsors, as a reminder, are those that shell out a huge sum of money to get exclusive rights to advertise during the games and to use stuff like the Olympics logo on their products. Case in point:
Though the London Organizing Committee tries to pass it off as otherwise, the irony is that the reasoning behind Rule 40, of course, is just…money. Duh. Well, perhaps I’ve spoken too soon, let’s leave it to them to explain:
“The rationale for Rule 40 goes back to the amateur roots of the Olympic movement. The rule ensured that athletes maintained their amateur status. The Games have, of course, moved on and in the majority of sports professional athletes now compete in the Games. However, to protect against ambush marketing; prevent unauthorised commercialisation of the Games; and to protect the integrity of athletes’ performance at the Games, the IOC places certain limits on how a Participants’ image can be exploited during the Games Period.”
Those first two lines are great. “Oh yeah, the reason we do it is because the games are all about amateurism. Well, they’re not actually anymore, but…uh…wait…nevermind. Yeah, actually, we just don’t want ‘unauthorized commercialisation’ and it’s actually about athletes having integrity…uhhh.” Throw in a few menacing words like “exploited” and you’re good to go.
What’s silly is the extent to which Rule 40 affects athletes’ own personal expression. I can see the argument that things might get a little out of hand if athletes are parading all over town with ads for sponsors from deodorant brands to fried chicken. But even social media participation is strictly regulated. A Tweet about an athlete’s cleats or the sponsor that helped finance their entire career and therefore get to the games? Banned.
Sassy Olympian Nick Symmonds tweeted this in protest: “Spent the day at my fav sponsor’s hospitality. Won’t name them so as not to violate #Rule40. Also, interesting shrub.”
The London Organizing Committee’s explanation on Rule 40 continues:
“Ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes and NGBs to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games. This undermines the exclusivity that Organising Committees and/or NOCs can offer official Games and Team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen…To protect against this, Rule 40 therefore places limits on the advertising activities of Participants, solely for the period of, and just before, the Games.”
Okay, thanks for clarifying: Rule 40 is really about your own commercial interests.
Though the IOC initially resisted funding by corporate sponsors, it capitalized on the TV and advertising markets in the 1970s, and went on to bring in more revenue by granting exclusive partnerships to certain companies. This allowed the games to surge in popularity and influence around the globe, but also set up the inevitable commercial influence.
Sponsorship is worth a ton of money for the IOC–a reported $957 million from ’09 to ’12, according to Forbes. The IOC depends on these mega sponsorships in part to fund the games.
And sponsors like Adidas don’t like it when athletes like Nick Symmonds tweet about how great Nike is. We get it. Let’s just call it like it is, without bringing the athletes’ “integrity” and “commercialisation” (with an “s”) into it.
Ambush marketing: Condom controversy
Probably my favorite weird story to emerge this games: The policing of this so-called “ambush marketing” got a little bit on the ridiculous side when officials got up in arms over a bucket of “rogue Australian condoms”: contraceptives allegedly planted in the Village without authority. That caused some upset because, in fact, Durex is the official sponsor of Olympic Village condoms. Clearly, the IOC does not want any hard-bodied Olympians gettin’ it on with a non-official rubber.
There are a lot of fuzzy gray areas here when it comes to commercialization of the games and the so-called Olympic “spirit,” but all of this is to say that I find it naïve when we talk about how keeping money out of the Olympics–especially when it comes to the athletes–is noble. Didn’t we get a little past that point when the amateur-only rule went out the window for most events?
Does giving medal bonuses to athletes or letting them tweet about their sponsors really dilute the spirit of the Olympics?
I guess what I’m really asking is: Are Ennis and Dai all the more inspirational for taking money for being on a postage stamp than for getting a medal?
I’m not so sure.